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Advisory board calls for transparency in city’s social services funding process

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As the City of Lawrence formulates its 2023 budget, some social services leaders and members of an advisory board want more transparency, equity and public engagement in the priority-based budgeting process used to distribute funding for social service agencies.

Members of the Special Alcohol Funding Advisory Board (SAFAB) are charged with reviewing requests and making funding recommendations for the special alcohol tax to the Lawrence City Commission. They submitted their annual report to Assistant City Manager Casey Toomay in late April demanding clarity in the process and their role in it.

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They also want city officials to acknowledge the power differential between the city and social service agencies within the current process.

“The purpose of this letter is to say that over the last 20 years the process was clear and inclusive. We are hoping that next year changes will be made for a more communicative process with the public and agencies allowing an equitable entry point for these funds.”

Mandy Enfield, director of operations for United Way of Douglas County, was appointed as the SAFAB United Way liaison in February 2021 and serves as board vice chair. She said decisions to redirect alcohol tax money previously awarded to the WRAP behavioral health program in the Lawrence school district, as well as the city commission’s choice to defer funding approval from the General Fund for the Lawrence Community Shelter during its Feb. 15 meeting, serve as examples of “the tangled web” that encompasses the city’s outside funding processes.

Furthermore, Enfield said, the city made those important decisions before receipt of the final results of a homelessness needs assessment, the second part of which was released last week. Researchers from the University of Kansas plan to present their preliminary findings to the city commission in June.

“You’re getting the cart before the horse. You’re defunding prevention services without being informed,” Enfield said of the city. “And there’s an amount of accountability that needs to be happening when you’re taking millions of dollars from our most vulnerable citizens. They need to have the data and the evidence and the research to back that up.”

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Special alcohol tax

Kansas statute directs cities with a population of 6,000 or more to receive 70% of the collected taxes from alcohol sales and distribute one-third to each of three city pots: general fund, special parks and recreation fund, and a special alcohol and drug programs fund.

A city charter ordinance outlines use of the special alcohol tax, stating the money is to be directed toward “programs, services, equipment, personnel, and capital expenditures” related to alcohol or drug abuse treatment and prevention programs.

In 2018, the city implemented priority-based budgeting — a process designed to align the city’s budget with its priorities using an evaluation matrix based on the strategic plan. Formerly known as the Social Service Funding Advisory Board, the seven-member Special Alcohol Funding Advisory Board was established in 2019 after the city’s new budgeting process had taken root. 

In 2021, eight social services agencies received $692,000 from the city’s special alcohol tax grants — often referred to as outside agency funding — for drug and alcohol abuse treatment and prevention programs.

But for 2022, the city’s priority-based budgeting redirected $339,000 from the general fund and $800,000 from the special alcohol tax fund previously used to support outside agencies to the Housing Initiatives Division, to focus those resources on homeless outreach, emergency sheltering and rapid rehousing. This changed a grantmaking process that some social services agencies had come to rely on.

Routing money toward the goal of ending chronic homelessness and toward housing resources isn’t the problem — that investment was long overdue, Enfield said. The problem is the process’s lack of transparency.

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Enfield said since the 2022 budget was presented last summer, the process for social service agencies to receive funding from special alcohol tax funds still had not been clarified; and although the possibility of a Request for Proposal (RFP) application through the advisory board had been mentioned during multiple public meetings, no RFP process had yet been put into place. And board members still don’t have a clear understanding of their role in funding recommendations and reviews.

Advocates for social services say they simply want a fair process with clearly stated rules and a public application process.

In the memo to Toomay, the SAFAB wrote, “Since August, the Commission and staff have repeatedly made ambiguous and inconsistent statements about the availability of these specific funds and also stated that social service funding 1) has not been cut, 2) could still be available to agencies who align with the strategic plan goals, (and) 3) will possibly be available to prevention services.”

City spokesperson Porter Arneill said in an email the “decision to move away from an open-ended grant process was discussed throughout the city’s budget process” last summer.

“As a result, it was decided to direct city dollars to address three priorities: homeless outreach, emergency sheltering and rapid rehousing. This was ultimately decided by the city commission when the budget was passed in September of 2021. This decision was made in direct response to the listening sessions held as part of the city’s strategic plan development community engagement process where the community identified a need for the city to do more to address the needs of those experiencing houselessness.”

Arneill did not respond directly to questions regarding the homelessness needs assessment or the status of an RFP process. He said since the adoption of the 2022 budget the SAFAB has had conversations about its role and expressed its desire for additional clarity. The board’s annual report is scheduled to be included on the Lawrence City Commission’s June 7 meeting agenda.

‘An abusive power dynamic’

Enfield said social service agencies can’t fully advocate for themselves when they have something to lose — future funding, for example — for fear of retaliation for speaking out against a decision-maker or the funding process. That power inequity, Enfield said, influences the fairness of the process.

“Intentionally or not, the city and commission created an abusive power dynamic and disenfranchised the front-line social service providers in our community. By silencing these front-line workers who represent many of the unheard voices in our city you created further inequity in conflict to the stated city values,” the advisory board wrote.

During the SAFAB’s April 22 meeting, Kyle Roggenkamp, development and family stabilization director for the Ballard Center, spoke during public comment and thanked the board members for their memo.

He said he had learned through working “in the trenches” not to give clients experiencing poverty false hope and to acknowledge the power dynamic involved “when you have resources that someone else needs to stabilize, to survive, to thrive.”

“And when you have the resources that someone else needs to get by, you are responsible for that relationship. You are responsible for making sure that you are using clear and direct messaging to the folks that are trying to access those resources. You’re responsible for reducing as many barriers as possible to those resources, and you’re responsible for maintaining the trust within that relationship. That’s what a power dynamic is.”

He asked the city to use those same guiding principles during its own funding decisions. “Because within this power dynamic, we’re the clients and you have the resources.”

An ‘opaque’ process

Part of the SAFAB’s responsibilities are to “review requests and make recommendations to the city commission on the use of Special Alcohol Funds.”

Former City Commissioner Leslie Soden said participatory budgeting lies at the root of advisory boards such as the SAFAB. With city staff making funding decisions “in the background,” the process of priority-based budgeting — as it’s operating now — takes away “the democratic decision-making” some advisory board members felt they had before.

“Opaque” is how Soden described the current process, from her viewpoint.

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Soden’s term ran from 2015 to 2019, and she served as mayor in 2017. She said she advocated for priority-based budgeting and attended a workshop on it while in office.

“I thought it’d be a great way to make sure that when someone is campaigning and saying all these changes they want to make, that if the entire governing body agrees with those ideas, they have a way to actually influence the funding and direct it to those ideas that they might have campaigned on.”

She didn’t, however, intend it as a means to “subvert participatory budgeting by citizens” and thinks the two models of funding sit in direct conflict with each other in the current system.

“When people think they’re involved but city staff are bypassing the more open transparent model, then yes, I do believe that’s a problem.”

Soden said public perception was key and decisions must be made during an open process where “the goal is known to everyone.” If the governing body and city staff want to change the funding process, they should get the advisory board’s buy-in.

“But if they decide that the advisory board is somehow no longer needed in some fashion, then they need to say that. Or if they need to change the advisory board, whether that involves broadening their charge or shrinking their charge, then they also need to say that as well,” Soden said. “If things keep moving, then that destroys the trust that we have with our advisory boards and with the public and how we’re dealing with tax dollars.”

The city’s 2023 budget calendar shows department budget creation scheduled for Friday, May 27 and public budget hearings on Aug. 23.

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Tricia Masenthin (she/her), equity reporter, can be reached at tmasenthin (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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